City of Djinn: scattered like seeds

Record: City of Djinn (2019)

If I were another on the road, I would have said
to the guitar: teach me an extra string!
Because the house is farther, and the road to it prettier —
that’s what my new song would say. Whenever
the road lengthens the meaning renews, and I become two
on this road: I…and another!

from the poem “If I Were Another,” by Mahmoud Darwish

What does it feel like to not be able to go home? This is the urgent global question (and brutal reality) for millions of people: Turkey, Thailand, Myanmar, Brazil, Ethiopia, Libya, Palestine, Lebanon, DR Congo, Mexico… The list, which is growing, is beyond the scope of one region, one people, one hemisphere, one solution — it’s everywhere — it’s huge, it’s scary, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s getting more disruptive every year.

And yet, the road home is still calling. We’ve created so many indifferent, sterile terms, like invisible walls, for people who are simply trying to get back home: refugees, detainees, the displaced, the downtrodden, asylum seekers and exiles, the outcasts, fugitives, and the stateless. Even these terms are a form of punishment rather than banners of freedom. Fear — terror — follows in the wake of every new label we create.

How can we (those of us lucky enough, for now — and it’s just luck — to remain where we consider home) know what it feels like to be one of the unlucky? Through stories, of course. And music.

The band, City of Djinn
City of Djinn (Micah Bezold and Marwan Kamel, photo courtesy of Somnimage Corporation, used by permission)

The Chicago-based band City of Djinn (Marwan Kamel and Micah Bezold) have released a bold, brave debut EP rich in the traditions of tarab (a term not easily accessible in English, but generally referring to a feeling created by musical performance, both for audiences and performers alike, akin to a state of ecstasy). Tarab has evolved for centuries from deep roots in Mediterranean Arab culture. The band’s press materials call their use if it a post-tarab form.

The first track on this eponymous six-song EP, “Hakawati,” also suggests another road to understanding the power of all of these songs: “hakawati” is the Lebanese word for “storyteller.” It’s also the title of a novel by Rabih Alameddine (The Hakawati, 2008), the gifted Lebanese-American writer and painter. The Hakawati weaves together multiple exiles and homecomings through the shared stories (and scandals) spanning three generations of one family.

The storyteller keeps a people together through shared memory. By combining the traditions of the hakawati and tarab (and, albeit one of my own tangents, by way of understanding the universal appeal of oral tradition and memory, that of Mr. Alameddine’s novel of similar title), the City of Djinn creates their own sonic roadmap of embattled souls across a psychedelic, hypnotic landscape of acoustic and electric guitars, buzuq and violin, drums and stomp box and cymbals, and more. This was once labeled “world music,” but that was when the world was larger — and our vocabulary was much smaller and limited to notions narrowly trapped inside Western popular culture. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

“Hakawati” is perhaps the most lyrical and passionate song on this record, culminating as it does in a haunting spoken-word passage about poets and their emotional narratives of rebellion and courage and lives scattered, like seeds — some to survive, some to perish.

The second song on the EP, “Haqq,” is also the Ottoman word for truth. These first two songs make this is an intensely political record. These songs open the heart but can’t possibly fill the holes. These first two songs, the only two with Arabic titles, when taken together, also make a subtle statement: as an outsider, I need to be careful not to appropriate what is not mine to take. Words can have many meanings with this band, these stories, and some tread very close to sacred texts. To speculate further without the proper invitation and guidance would be to diminish the power this band creates with its narratives. And this is where music becomes the first art form: a musical form like tarab communicates at an emotional level long before a complete understanding of the lyrics emerges.

The final four songs: “Mirrorman,” “Primal Horde,” “Towers of Silence,” and “Slash/Burn” complete an overall sense of memorial embodied in this record. “City of Djinn” is dedicated to “the displaced, depressed, and downtrodden.” It’s both accessible and slightly inaccessible yet remains haunting and beautiful and sad.

So how does it feel when you can’t go home? Should poetry, or the lyrical power of songs like these, call down a fire to consume everything that’s broken in the world? Millions of people are suffering right now. What can six songs do? Everything. The only path to change lies in the human heart to wake up, feel compassion and empathy, and say no. We have to start with today, right here, now. “City of Djinn” is a passionate evocation of the urgency of the moment.

What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only the stories of events affect us.

from The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine (Anchor Books, 2009)
Old shopkeeper

Editorial footnote: For a deeper dive and for up-to-date information about the suffering of refugees worldwide, sign up to receive the electronic newsletter from Human Rights Watch. These stories will shock you, as they do me. These stories are real. Some will break your heart. Still, we can all do something to help, even if all we can do is listen.